As the American empire crumbles, the rat is crowned king

Why a bad rattitude is exactly what we need right now

Illustration By robert armstrong

It is the Year of the Rat, and we are going down. The signs are all around us. Global warming. Peak oil. The War on Terror. Not a day passes without some new apocalyptic portent. Thanks to climate change, the Burmese python may soon infest the southern third of the United States and much of California, scientists said last week. Petroleum pushed past $100 per barrel, further roiling global capital markets. President George W. Bush shot down a satellite, threatening to extend his realm into outer space. The Earth cast a blood-red shadow during last week’s lunar eclipse.

We are doomed, and like rats, we will fight each other for every last scrap that’s left in the race to the bottom. One family’s foreclosure is the next-door neighbor’s opportunity. Our multimillionaire movie-star governor blithely guts social spending rather than raise taxes on his own kind. The high-flying corporate engineers of our unfolding economic disaster are already fishing for the largest taxpayer-funded bailout in history. Apparently, they are entitled to a safety net; our most vulnerable citizens are not.

I do not like rats. I have seen them in action. I particularly recall an encounter at a restaurant in the Pocket. It was raining, and a family of four walked in ahead of me. They jerked to a halt in the foyer. Perched atop the newspaper boxes on its hindquarters was the biggest, wettest, meanest looking rat I’d ever seen, with beady militant eyes and sharp buckteeth bared in an angry snarl.

The father squeezed past the rat and retrieved a busboy with a broom. Back, the busboy motioned, like he was stepping into a batting circle. He cocked the broom and swung, and if he had connected, he surely would have launched the hapless rodent into orbit. Instead, the rat sprung at him like it had been shot out of a cannon. It came in low, under the swinging broom, and buried its claws in the busboy’s apron.

The busboy screamed.

The rat clawed up the apron and attached itself to the busboy’s face, like that thing in Alien. The foyer exploded in a flurry of flailing limbs as the busboy clutched at the flesh-eating creature. He finally latched on to the rat and furiously flung it into the parking lot, where it bounced off a car and hit the pavement with a lethal-sounding thud before skittering away unharmed. It was all over in a matter of seconds. The family vanished, leaving just me and the ashen busboy, thin red scratches on each pale cheek, to witness the escape.

No, I do not like rats. Yet, somewhat ironically, I am a rat. I was born in 1960, which, as I have learned from countless Chinese restaurant placemats, was also the Year of the Rat (it comes around every 12 years). Like the West, the Chinese associate the rat with disorder, disease and death. As Wikipedia notes, “Rats are masters of mind games and can be very dangerous, calculative and downright cruel if the need arises. Quick-tempered and aggressive, they will not think twice about exacting revenge on those that hurt them in any way.”

I have to be honest: As far as my own personality is concerned, that’s a little too close to the mark. However, unlike the West, which has virtually nothing nice to say about the rat, the Chinese confer positive attributes to the rodent as well. Wikipedia again: “Rat people are endowed with great leadership skills and are the most highly organized, meticulous, and systematic of the twelve signs. … They are energetic and versatile and can usually find their way around obstacles, and adapt to various environments easily.”

In other words, the rat possesses precisely the traits needed to survive the race to the bottom. Make no mistake, that is where we’re headed. Like that cornered critter in the restaurant, it is high time we all channeled our own inner rats. Those who don’t may just not make it.